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Climate change threatens world food supply

United Nations report says we have 15 years to mitigate global warming by reducing emissions


Climate change has been big in the news as extreme weather events like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy keep happening all over the globe.

I’d always thought of global warming in terms of weather pattern changes. Like us getting California’s weather, polar ice caps and glaciers melting, seas rising, and water shortages.June 4 guest opinion

But I never considered, or was even aware of, the much more drastic affects those climate changes would bring about.

Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been in the Great Decisions group in Madras, which studies and discusses world events and U.S. policies toward them. This year’s chapter on “Food and Climate” was an eyeopener for me. (This information comes from that study, and reports from the World Bank and United Nations International Panel on Climate Change).

The world’s current population of 7.1 billion is predicted to grow to 8.1 billion by 2030, yet the major food producing areas will be in trouble.

In subSaharan Africa, around 40 percent of the maize (corn) fields will no longer be suitable for cultivation, according to a climate change report issued by the World Bank. In heavily populated Southeast Asia, rising sea levels and salt intrusion will take farmland out of pro­duc­tion and put aquaculture farms at risk in the Mekong, Irrawaddy and Chao Phraya deltas.

Monsoon intensity will increase, there will be heat extremes unknown today, Himalayan glaciers will retreat, and flooding will increase in the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra rivers. The wet places will get wetter, and the dry places will get drier.

World temperatures are rising due to the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels in industrialized countries.

The report predicts a four-degree Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in world temperatures would have “devastating effects on water and food, prompting tens of millions of refugees to flee degraded environments.”

In our own country, a 2013 drought affected four-fifths of U.S. agricultural lands. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has established seven regional climate hubs to work with farmers and foresters to plan for climate hazards and ways to adapt.

Vilsack noted that agriculture is also a major contributor to climate change through its greenhouse gas emissions (carbon released by plowing land) and introduced a carbon management tool to help farmers reduce emissions.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization predicts declining rainfall will lead to a 45 percent increase in irrigated land in southern Asia, Latin America and Africa to meet food demands.

Yet in many countries, water withdrawals for irrigation are exceeding the natural replenishment of aquifers. Water is almost fully allocated already in major river basins, including the Indus, Nile, Jordan, Yellow River, Mekong, Syr Darya and Amu Darya.

Large rice, wheat and soybean producing areas like China’s Yellow River valley are suffering from saline intrusion, storm damage and water shortages – which can impact international food prices.

History has been influenced by agricultural shortages caused by climate events. A grain harvest failure, food shortage and price spike was a major driver of uprisings that led to the French Revolution. And high world food prices played a part in setting the stage for the Arab Spring, according to a report by Oxford University geographer Troy Sternberg.

He noted a winter drought in China contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices in Egypt, just as unrest was brewing. Egypt relies heavily on grain imports, and bread is a main staple — providing one-third of the diet of the Egyptian population.

The doubling of global food prices had a drastic effect on Egyptian families’ ability to obtain food, and the frustration helped set the stage for the Arab Spring, he indicated.

Now imagine all the people displaced by rising seas and the invasion of salt water on croplands. An estimated 40 million in Bangladesh alone could end up as refugees.

Envision drinking and irrigation water shortages as glaciers melt and aquifers are pumped dry. Picture the great grain growing regions of the world affected by drought, knowing that world food prices are interdependent.

It’s a frightening world I can’t even begin to fathom. Yet, there are things we can do now to prevent temperatures from rising, if we’d just take action.

In a recent U.N. report, scientists say we have 15 years to mitigate global warming by reducing carbon emissions. But most people are focused on immediate local problems, instead of working to prevent a global crisis 15 years down the road.

The U.S. could reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions, for one thing, by getting rid of coal-fired power plants. Increasing standards for more fuel-efficient cars and trucks would help, as would expansion of zero-carbon energy from wind and solar power.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has done his part by publically taking a stand against coal exports from the Pacific Northwest, by opposing a coal export terminal in Boardman. Why clean up our own act, but ship the offending product off for others to burn?

Most of all, the United States needs to stand up and support an international program of greenhouse gas reductions, instead of derailing attempts like the Kyoto Accord.

Yes, limiting the amount of carbon a U.S. factory can belch out will cut into factory owners’ profits. But how does that compare to the chaotic world that will result if we just keep producing carbon?

The next major international climate conference will be held in Paris in December 2015, and the clock is ticking.

Susan Matheny is a columnist for the Pamplin Media Group



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